Caught in the Crosshairs - Part Two
Sorting though the styles, the choices and the marketing hype to choose an effective hunting reticle
Last month we looked at the development of the modern riflescope reticle, focal planes, MOA vs. Mil-Radians, and the pros and cons of illuminated reticles. This time, we’re going to take a hard look through the viewfinder at the characteristics that make a good hunting reticle, versus one you might come to regret.
Styles of reticles
Post and crosshair
First, there were simple crosshairs, which provided an aiming point but little more. The Europeans were the first to experiment with modifications, the simplest being the addition of heavier posts, usually at the 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions. These posts tend to draw the eye to the center of the reticle, with nothing to clutter the sight picture, and such designs remain extremely popular today. They are especially useful for running and/or dangerous game applications, where quick shots can be required. With the European love for hunting driven boar, usually at close ranges, you can see why such designs—sometimes called “duplex” or “post and crosshairs”—evolved. The German No. 4 reticle remains the most popular all-around reticle in most of Europe. There are better choices, though, for mountain hunting, which usually involves longer ranges and more deliberate, carefully considered shots.
There is a dizzying array of choices that can be grouped under the broad (and often misleading) heading of “ballistic” reticles. In simplest terms, this means adding markings to a reticle that in some way tie into the inherent ballistics of a rifle and its cartridge, providing you with holdover points and/or rangefinding information.
When I learned to shoot, basic crosshairs were about the only choice. We sighted in a rifle “a couple of inches high at 100” and assumed that we would be more or less on target (if the target was pretty large) out to 250 or 300 yards. This is still the technique used by vast number of casual hunters, but it is like using a rotary dial phone when you can have an iPhone instead. They both work, but one does the job a lot more elegantly.
The purpose, both of the “couple inches high” theory and of a ballistic reticle, is to compensate for the effects of gravity. As with Isaac Newton’s apple, a bullet fired from a rifle will eventually fall to the ground. The goal is to eliminate the need to estimate holdover and to dispense with guessing, which more often than not results in a miss.
Some reticles accomplish this goal extremely well. Those are the exceptions. The truth of the matter is that far too many “ballistic” reticles are marketing gimmicks, overly complicated, completely impractical, or all of the above. Do not get taken in by exaggerated advertising claims.
Early attempts at compensating for a bullet’s inherent downward trajectory required you to know things like the chest-to-shoulder height of a given game animal, or even more absurd, the size of its antlers or horns. Align the reticle markings accordingly, and you will instantly know the range and where to aim. Right. This might work if you only hunt one type of game, and if every one of its species is exactly the same size. It also helps if you have several minutes to do all this, and your target doesn’t move. Thankfully, most of these creations have gone by the wayside, but a few still persist. Avoid them. Please.
Another type of design, sometimes referred as BDC (bullet drop compensating), incorporates lines, circles, dots, or other such markings on the vertical scale of a reticle that are intended to provide holdover points at various ranges. Do they work? Some do. Many don’t. What I can guarantee is that virtually none of them will work right perfectly right out of the box, and you will have some homework to do to make them perform as intended.
Such reticles are tied to the ballistics of your rifle and the trajectory of your load. Published ballistic charts and tables are only estimates, and if you take them as gospel you will be disappointed. There are so many variables—bullet design and ballistic coefficient, bullet weight, powder, case, primer, barrel length, and more—it is unrealistic to expect an off-the-shelf reticle of this design to be right on target, literally or figuratively. Even the exact same cartridge of the same caliber will shoot to different points in different makes of rifles.
Does this mean that drop-compensating reticles are ineffective? No. What it means is that the only way to confirm indicated holdover points is by live firing at the range at each marked distance. Being inherently lazy, I’d love to put a shiny new riflescope on one of my rifles with complete confidence that it will shoot exactly where the markings say, with no effort on my part. For that matter, I’d like to win the lottery, too. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as “one size fits all.”
One of the more effective ballistic systems I’ve seen consists of the Nightforce Velocity™ 600 and Velocity™ 1000 reticles. The 600 is designed for accurate shot placement to 600 yards; the 1000 adds more holdover markings for ranges to 1000 yards.
There are multiple versions offered of each reticle, the only difference being the distance between the holdover marks. Nightforce found that virtually every known rifle caliber matches almost perfectly with one of just a few reticle configurations. The concept is based upon the bullet weight, the bullet’s ballistic coefficient, and above all, the muzzle velocity of a given load. The validity of this approach was proven to me when I ran the ballistic information on two radically different calibers of mine through Nightforce’s online calculator: a .30-06 shooting a 180-grain bullet at 2750 fps, and a .330 Dakota firing a 250-grain bullet at 2765 fps. No way, I thought, that the same holdover markings would apply to a 180-grain and 250-grain bullet. But they did. The same Velocity™ 600 MV (medium velocity) works admirably for both, with minimum deviation from the reticle’s standard markings.
For reference, see the “Velocity Reticle Calculator7000ft” chart, which was generated for my .30-06. While a 200-yard zero is standard for the center point of a Velocity 600 reticle, in this case, Nightforce recommended a 205-yard zero. This minimizes any deviation from the reticle’s holdover markings across the entire 600-yard trajectory. For example, if I hold at the 300-yard mark, my bullet will hit 0.4076 inches low. At 400 yards, 0.8793 inches low. At 500 yards point of impact is 1.0042 inches low, and at 600 yards, I am only 0.0511 inches low.
So, the maximum deviation from the reticle’s indicated distance markings at any point out to 600 yards is a mere one inch. Maximum deviation using the same reticle on my .330 was 1.6411 inches, that at 500 yards. I can certainly live with that in a hunting environment.
One real advantage of such a system is that it is quick, and we all know that speed is often of the essence when hunting. If you know the range to a target, you simply choose the proper holdover marking, aim dead on and fire. There are no calculations, no charts to consult, no guessing. The reticle is relatively uncluttered and applicable to just about any hunting environment, with the possible exception of dangerous game.
It is imperative, though, that with such a system you must use real-world muzzle velocity figures, determined by a chronograph. That is the only way to ensure precise point of impact at various ranges.
It works. I’ve dropped an elk at 550 yards, and put a bullet through a six-inch opening at just under 300 yards, due entirely to the reticle, not to my shooting prowess. This was only after confirming its performance at the range, though.
The bottom line? Ballistic reticles can be extremely useful for the mountain hunter, if a few conditions are met:
• The reticle must not be overly cluttered or complicated.
• It must do its job quickly and with a minimum of thought.
• Its markings and promised performance must be matched as closely as possible to your rifle and your load.
• You must verify all reticle markings—and advertising claims—through live firing at multiple distances.
Dots, hash marks, stadia and subtensions
It should be no surprise that tactical and military professionals were instrumental in driving the development of effective ballistic reticles, and one of the earliest and most successful designs is the Mil-Dot. The first practical application of the Mil-Dot reticles was in the Unertl 10x fixed-power riflescopes used by the U.S. Marine Corps snipers from WW II through the Vietnam war. They provide reliable range estimating as well as accurate elevation and windage holds. They are based on the mil-radian system of metric measurement, one mil being equal to 10 centimeters at 100 meters.
The Mil-Dot reticle laid the groundwork for most truly effective ballistic designs that followed, due to its markings and line widths being universally consistent. For example, the distance between each dot is precisely one mil at 100 meters. The dots themselves are .25 mil in diameter. Each line thickness and distance between points also has a specific measurement in mils or fractions of mils.
The Mil-Dot reticle allows the shooter to accurately estimate distance to target—in meters or yards—by knowing the size of the target and applying it to a mathematical formula. This would, in turn, tell the shooter precisely which dot to use for elevation holdover and windage compensation.
Mil-Dot reticles remain extremely popular with military and law enforcement professionals as well as with accomplished civilian shooters. “Accomplished” is the key word, though. The Mil-Radian system of measurement (see Part One of this article), while extremely accurate, requires a lot of time to master, and quick and effective use of the reticle itself demands a good amount of training and practice.
Since math and I never got along, I prefer the minute-of-angle (MOA) system of measurement—similar in application to mil-radians, but easier for me to comprehend since it is based on inches and yards. One MOA is 1.047 inches at 100 yards—we’ll call it an even one inch for simplicity. Two MOA is approximately two inches at 200 yards, three inches at 300 yards, and so on. The markings on an MOA-based reticle, properly known as stadia, correspond to minutes of angle or fractions thereof. The spacing/thickness of the markings are called “subtension.” The reticle subtends to a different measurement at every range.
This sounds more complicated than it really is. Let’s say your rifle shoots 16 inches low at 400 yards. At 400 yards, one MOA equals approximately four inches. So, assuming you have zeroed your scope at 100 yards, you would use the four-MOA mark below centerline to hold on your target and this would provide the necessary 16 inches of elevation.
We have to remember, though, that depending upon the scope, subtensions can vary according to magnification settings. And, if you intend to use an MOA reticle for rangefinding (target size in inches, divided by MOA times 100, equals range to target in yards), it is only accurate at a specific magnification setting, usually marked on the riflescope. While laser rangefinders have reduced the need to estimate range with a reticle, it is still a useful technique to know.
So, is an MOA- or mil-radian-based ballistic reticle a good choice for mountain hunting? Absolutely, under certain conditions. If you expect to regularly encounter long shots, say 400 yards and beyond, it is the quickest and most precise means of applying an accurate holdover (and windage compensation, if necessary). It is also an excellent choice for smaller targets. There is, though, a substantial learning curve, and you will want to spend a lot of time at the range. A good ballistic reticle is a remarkable tool, but on the side of a mountain in fading light is not the time you want to figure out how to use it.
The best of both worlds?
If you find yourself occasionally hunting running game, if you rarely take shots much over 300 yards, if you at times hunt in thick cover, or if you simply prefer a less complicated, more traditional reticle, that brings us full circle back to the traditional post and crosshairs design. That doesn’t mean you have to go back to guessing, though, as a number of newer such reticles have been engineered to provide accurate holdover and windage reference points in a simple, uncluttered design.
One of my favorites is the IHR™ (International Hunting Reticle), a Nightforce creation. Note the measurements in the subtension diagram. The floating center crosshair (C) is precisely six MOA in width and height. The distance from the crosshair to the thin open posts (E) is exactly three MOA. If you needed six MOA of elevation, for example, to compensate for bullet drop over a long distance, if you held on your target at the tip of the thin post below centerline, that is what you would get (one-half the height of the floating crosshair = three MOA, plus the open space below it, an additional three MOA).
All markings on this deceptively simple design are directly related to MOA. The D measurement, for example, is 20 MOA. H is 37 MOA. The thickness of the heavy posts, B, is 1.5 MOA.
Six MOA at 500 yards, by the way, is approximately 30 inches, pretty close to the drop of a .300 Win Mag at that distance. Your mileage may vary, but you can see that memorizing just a few of the subtensions in this reticle would give you some rather precise reference points for elevation and windage compensation.
It sure beats guessing, and it’s a lot quicker than consulting a drop chart or trying to estimate the size of your target in the field. Plus, these simple calculations can be performed without having to take your eye off of your target.
No, it’s not as precise as a detailed MOA or Mil-Radian reticle, but it results in a reticle that’s just as effective on a deer in the woods as on a sheep a mountaintop away. Most manufacturers should publish, or can provide you with, their reticle MOA subtensions. If they cannot, I suggest finding a different manufacturer.
More questions…and answers
Using a borrowed rifle and scope once cost me a nice muntjac during a hunt in England. The muntjac is a small deer that stands about 20 inches high at the shoulder. The reticle I was using was so thick it resembled crossed two by fours. It would have been fine for a big wild boar being driven through the woods, but at 300 yards it completely covered the tiny animal. Shot placement? I couldn’t even see where I would have placed a shot.
Conversely, an extremely thin reticle, such as those preferred by varmint hunters and competition shooters, who are concerned with fractions of an inch, are often too fine for big game applications. They can easily disappear against the body of a dark animal and are difficult to see in low light or thick cover.
Like Goldilocks, you are looking for one that is just right. It must be thick enough to see easily, but not so thick that it obscures your target.
A reticle should be specifically tailored to the scope you choose, too. A reticle designed for maximum performance in a high-magnification riflescope, for example, a 5 to 25x model, will generally not provide good results in a 2.5-10x riflescope, and vice versa.
Buying a good riflescope/reticle combination is a substantial investment. If your friendly local dealer will allow it, I highly recommend test-driving a reticle/scope combination for a few days before plunking down a pile of cash. Take it home and see how it looks at dawn and dusk, not just at midday. Try it on neighborhood dogs and cats (not mounted on a rifle, please) at close distances and at long ranges, to get an idea of how it looks against an animal. Bring it to your eye quickly and make sure it works well with your vision. If it has rangefinding and/or holdover capabilities, make sure you are comfortable with them, that they are not overly complex, and that they will help, not hinder your hunting style.
If you can’t borrow the scope/reticle for a test drive, at the very least, call the customer service department of the scope manufacturer you are considering. Tell them about you, about your rifle, and about your hunting style, and ask for recommendations. They should be more than willing to talk hunting with you. If you perceive that the person on the other end of the line is not a hunter, or is reading to you from a catalog, I suggest considering another brand.
Wrestling with reticles
We hunters are fond of spending long hours debating the merits of one caliber over another. We’ll spend years saving for a fine custom rifle. We’ll devour every written word on a new riflescope. But how often have you heard a spirited discussion around the campfire about a reticle? This is unfortunate, because ultimately, it is the reticle that allows you to translate all the potential of rifle, cartridge and optics into an accurate shot on your target.
Next time you’re in the market for a new scope, give some thought to your reticle, too. Just don’t make it an afterthought.
Caught in the Crosshairs - Part One
If you have your sights on a new riflescope, you might want to think about your reticle first. Here’s what you need to consider.
Hunting was a lot simpler 30 or 40 years ago. Riflescopes came only in a few basic flavors, and about all we had to worry about was the scope’s magnification range and if it was of reasonably decent quality. Rarely was a choice of reticles even offered, and most hunters accepted the basic “crosshairs” that came as standard equipment because there simply weren’t any other options.
As with other aspects of modern life, radical new technologies have arrived in optics industry…one result being a vast, albeit sometimes confusing, array of new reticle designs. The good news is that in conjunction with remarkable advances in riflescope design and quality, and vastly improved bullet construction for flat-shooting calibers, today’s rifle/scope/reticle combinations are capable of pinpoint precision at extreme distances unheard of just a couple of decades ago.
The bad news? Choosing a reticle now requires a great deal of thought and soul-searching. Some are extremely sophisticated and user-friendly. Others, frankly, are little more than marketing gimmicks. A reticle must be appropriate to the type of game pursued by the hunter, his hunting environment, and perhaps most important, to his attitude. The right one can be your BFF. Make the wrong choice, and a reticle could prove to be your worst enemy.
There is a reason why the riflescopes available from the handful of manufacturers building the very best optics can cost well into four figures. These companies are crafting scopes using the finest raw materials and most advanced manufacturing processes possible, scopes capable of previously unobtainable resolution and repeatability. This is why skilled shooters are able to push the envelope of distance and accuracy ever further. Consider, for example, one of the recent world records, shot by Matthew D. Kline using a Nightforce scope. Mr. Kline put 10 shots into 2.815 inches at 1000 yards. There are days I would be happy with that at 100 yards.
The reticle is what translates all the inherent capability of riflescopes like these into something you can see—and ultimately apply to your target. This is why the proper reticle/scope combination for your application is so critical.
For the purpose of this article, we’re going to concentrate on what the hunter needs to consider, especially the mountain hunter, and leave the radically different concerns of tactical professionals, competition shooters and military snipers for another day. I am indebted to my friends at Nightforce Optics, who long ago realized that exceptional riflescopes and extremely precise purpose-built reticles are inseparable, for much of the information that follows.
To illustrate just how important reticles have become in the buying decision, I asked Sean Murphy, marketing project manager at Nightforce, what their customers say about reticles when they’re considering a new riflescope. “Sometimes I think we sell just as many riflescopes because of our reticles as due to the scopes themselves,” he laughed. “We created most of our own reticle designs,” he said, “and they have proven to be so effective that many of our customers request a specific reticle first, then choose a scope it is available in.”
What is a reticle?
The term “reticle” is derived from the Latin “reticulum,” which means “net,” referring to a net of fine lines. Originally, reticles were made of hair (thus the term “crosshairs”) or of actual spider webs. Finding that such materials were a bit tricky to work with, optics manufacturers eventually began using extremely thin metal wire installed by hand. This technique was commonplace until recent years, and some time back I had the privilege of seeing this process. I watched a highly skilled individual, possessed of extremely steady hands and nerves, working under a high-power magnifying glass with tweezers to secure these microscopic bits of wire into place. It was a demanding procedure, a talent that took years to master, and the costs involved and the inherent design limitations of physical wires have made this increasingly rare.
Most reticles these days are etched into glass, often by lasers. This allows a virtually infinite variety of designs, and detail that would be impossible to achieve in any other fashion. It is still, however, a demanding process, and poorly made glass reticles are not highly durable.
A glass reticle can absorb light, as do all the lens elements in a riflescope, thus diminishing light transmission. The better manufacturers negate this, however, by multi-coating the reticle glass just as they do with the large lenses in a scope.
The plain truth about focal planes
In the construction of a riflescope, the reticle itself can be located in either the front (first focal plane) or rear (second focal plane) optical plane. Until recently, most riflescopes sold in North America were second focal plane design, while Europeans often preferred first focal plane configurations.
In a variable power second focal plane riflescope, the reticle, as you see it, does not change in size across the scope’s magnification range. In other words, it appears the same at four power as it would at, say, ten power.
In a first focal plane design, the reticle appears to grow larger as magnification increases. This can be disconcerting if you have not used a first focal plane scope.
Why the two styles? And is one better than another? The answer is, it depends.
Most hunters will be perfectly happy with a second focal plane reticle. This is what most of us are used to, and it presents the same reticle picture regardless of the scope’s magnification setting. There are many more scopes available with second focal plane reticles, and many more reticle designs available for them.
A reticle with first focal plane placement appears to grow as you increase the scope’s magnification. Hunters not used to this complain, “The reticle gets bigger.” That is not entirely accurate. The reticle stays in the exact proportion to the target across a scope’s entire magnification range. So, while your target will appear larger at 10x than at 3x, the reticle will appear proportionately larger, too. This characteristic has specific advantages for tactical shooters, many law enforcement and military professionals, and others who prefer its distinct attributes. Because the target and the reticle are always in the same relationship, it can provide sophisticated rangefinding information and can be extremely useful in rapid-fire environments where the shooter expects to encounter multiple targets at varying ranges and magnification settings.
Because of how the internal mechanics of a variable power riflescope function, first focal plane placement also absolutely guarantees there will be no shift in point of impact across a scope’s entire magnification range, while a poorly built second-focal-plane riflescope can place a bullet differently at high magnification settings than at lower settings. This shift might be negligible at 100 yards or so, maybe only a fraction of an inch, but any such error is multiplied as range increases. The easiest way to avoid this is simply to buy a good riflescope.
For hunting purposes, you will most likely be happiest with a second focal plane version. If you need the specialized behavior of a first focal plane reticle, chances are you already know that.
Illuminated or non-illuminated?
Most scope manufacturers offer the option of illuminated reticles. This simply means that some portion, or all, of the reticle can be illuminated, usually to varying degrees of brightness via a built-in rheostat. Better scopes provide very subtle levels of lighting, beginning at barely perceptible and continuing in small, user-selectable increments to quite bright. The purpose of this illumination is to allow you to see the center portion of the reticle at first or last light, when standard black crosshairs can disappear against the dark body of an animal.
Is it essential? Not necessarily. In my 40 years of hunting, there have been only four or five times I could not make out my crosshairs for a shot. But, if I was zeroed in on a real trophy, in those instances the illumination was priceless. If you are out at dawn and still out at dusk, or if you often encounter bad weather, it is definitely worth the small added cost of reticle illumination.
If you go that direction, make certain that your scope offers multiple—and subtle—degrees of illumination. While most reticle illumination is red, since red does not degrade night vision as much as other colors do, if you cannot control the brightness adequately, a bright flash of red light is going to leave you blind for several minutes.
The better manufacturers often build their illumination switches so you can pre-select a brightness setting appropriate for your conditions, then switch it off to conserve battery power. A small turn of the illumination control will then restore your illumination to your chosen setting. If you have to cycle through different brightness levels, not only is this inconvenient in the field, but it can ruin your night vision.
While most hunters value illuminated reticles for low-light use, the brighter settings can also be quite useful in extreme glare, snow, desert and sun-baked rocky environments.
A few states in the U.S. consider illuminated reticles to be “lights,” and prohibit their use for hunting. Check your regulations if you’re going to be hunting in one of those uninformed jurisdictions.
MOA, Mil-Radians, and More
Another recent development in riflescopes (and reticles) has been the choice of both MOA (Minute of Angle) and Mil-Radian elevation and windage adjustments. MOA adjustments have been around since the Jurassic age of riflescopes—except we used to call them “quarter-inch clicks.” The elevation and windage adjustments of most riflescopes (at least, those built for the American market) were marked in ¼ inch increments, the idea being that one click of the turret would move your bullet’s point of impact ¼ inch at 100 yards.
This was more than adequate when “long range” was considered perhaps 300 yards, and anything further was, regardless of the Annie Oakley-level prowess claimed by many hunters, in reality a Hail Mary effort. As rifles and riflescopes have become ever more capable of pinpoint precision at extreme distances, a 100-yard measuring stick no longer made sense. Thus, “minute of angle”—terminology that used to be heard only among military and competition shooters—has entered the lexicon of the average hunter. It is a highly precise reference point and infinitely more accurate method of determining shot placement at every distance than “couple inches high at 100.”
I asked Klaus Johnson, one of Nightforce’s top engineers and a man not intimidated by numbers, to explain MOA. “It is an angular system of measurement,” he said. “Many shooters think that one MOA equals one inch at 100 yards, but that is not entirely accurate. A true MOA is one-sixtieth of a degree, which is 1.047 inches at 100 yards.
“Because it is an angular measurement, it is not an equal, linear amount at all distances. So, one MOA is 1.047 inches at 100 yards, 2.094 inches at 200 yards, 3.131 inches at 300 yards, and so on.”
For the hunter, it is generally close enough (and much easier) to consider one MOA being one inch at 100 yards. This brings us full circle to ¼ inch clicks, the most common elevation and windage adjustments on hunting riflescopes. It is more accurate, though, to refer to them as ¼ MOA clicks. Why?
Because if and when you venture into a more sophisticated “ballistic” reticle, you will often be given the choice between an MOA or a Mil-Radian design, which also corresponds to the type of adjustments offered on your riflescope.
What about Mil-Radians? Mils are also an angular system of measurement, but quite different from MOAs. One mil is equal to 1/6283 of a circle, or 3.43775 MOA. One mil equates to 3.599 inches at 100 yards, or 1 centimeter at 100 meters.
Mil-Radian advocates claim that this discipline is more flexible and inherently more accurate than relying upon MOA. It is particularly appropriate when operating in metric environments, since it is based on increments of 1000. Becoming proficient in Mil-Radians is considerably more complicated, though, than dealing with MOAs. Even I can grasp the concept of one inch at 100 yards. Unless you are trained in military shooting or have prior experience in the Mil-Radian arena, my advice is to stick with MOAs. This will serve you well when we explore the remarkable capabilities of MOA-based reticles a little later.
The MOA-based Nightforce MOA™R reticle.
The Nightforce MIL-R™, an example of a Mil-Radian reticle designed for use with Mil-Radian elevation and windage adjustments.
Laying the groundwork
In Part One of our reticle journey, we’ve covered some pretty basic—and maybe a bit boring—details about how reticles and riflescopes function together. Part Two promises to be a bit more exciting, as we explore reticle styles, hunting applications of MOA-based reticles, and how to choose a reticle that just might open your eyes—literally—to new worlds of precision and confidence in your shooting. We’ll even look at how the most basic reticle can hold hidden secrets that will provide accurate holdovers and eliminate a lot of guessing. See you next time!
By Tom Bulloch
See the light!
One of the least understood, most abused topics in riflescopes is “light transmission.” You will find the truth quite…enlightening.
It was a very large and very hungry lion, not forty meters from where we sat and sweated. I could hear meat tearing and bones breaking, and an occasional low growl as it dismantled a hapless native cow. I could see nothing, not even the outline of the acacia tree from which the bait hung. The sun had set over an hour ago, and it would be several more hours before the moon rose. Sitting in the African darkness as a lion gorges itself a few paces away makes one wonder about the sanity of big game hunting.
"Get ready," Leon, my P.H., whispered. I aimed the .375 toward the sound of the carnage and eased off the safety. Our only source of light was a questionable flashlight, powered by three tired third-world batteries.
Leon switched on the weak light, and I found a tawny shape with the scope's crosshairs. Which end was which? Where do I shoot? Then the beast sensed the light, and turned its great head toward us, ringed by a dark mane. For a moment, it seemed that our eyes met. I found the animal's shoulder and the rifle's report shattered the silence of the night.
It sounded like the devil itself, snarling, spitting, roaring, crashing through the bush. Then, just as suddenly, all was still. We waited. Nothing. "I think it's dead," Leon said. "I'm pretty certain I hit it well," I offered, half in truth and half in hope, since searching for a wounded lion in the dead of night is not conducive to a long and happy life. After a rather tense half hour, we ventured from the blind—ever so cautiously—to have a look.
And there it was, dead, not fifty meters from the bait. One shot, through the lungs. It would measure nearly three meters from nose to tail, one of the largest lions taken in the area in many years. The celebration went on well into the night and my long quest for an African lion was over.
For weeks afterward, I relived the event, playing it back in my mind like a digital movie. Exciting? No doubt. Dangerous? Without question. Fortunately, everything had gone well. I couldn't credit my great shooting, for even I have difficulty missing at forty meters. The rifle? It did its job, to be sure. Hunting prowess? Leon was very skilled and experienced, and he had placed us in excellent position to ambush the great east.
Then it became as clear as the image of that lion—it was the riflescope. Without superb optics, I would never have had a shot. Shooting a lion by the light of a flashlight is not standard procedure. Without a scope that allowed me use every bit of that pathetically minimal light, it would have been impossible.
This was a revelation. Like many hunters, I had never given a scope that much thought. I am a sucker for handsome firearms, and making small sacrifices (such as eating) or composing justifications to my better half that would put a trial lawyer to shame have always been well worth the effort to acquire an elegant new long gun. A scope was an afterthought; a necessary evil that required yet more hard-earned funds.
My encounter with the lion made me see the light, in more ways than one. I had been doing things backwards all those years. In reality, I should have devoted much more attention (and money) to my optics than I did to the gun itself. After all, any decent rifle would have dispatched the lion. On the other hand, if the scope hadn't allowed a shot, the finest rifle on the planet would have been worthless.
This gave me a newfound interest in hunting optics. I began researching how riflescopes work, what separates a truly outstanding scope from one that is merely adequate, and delving into some of the advertising claims made by various scope companies. What I discovered was, well, enlightening. Rare is the hunter who cannot tell you about the ballistics, bullet performance, action and other pertinent features of his favorite rifle. Ask him about the performance of his scope, though, and chances are you will be met with a blank stare. Or at best, something nebulous about "light gathering" or “coatings” that he read in an article by an “expert” or saw in an advertisement.
That leads us to Truth Number One about riflescopes; there is no riflescope made that can "gather" light. Scopes can only transmit available light. Some do a better job of it than others. The ability of a scope to transmit to your eye the maximum possible available light is what determines whether it will be a sterling performer in near darkness or whether it is best left to noontime use on a sunny day.
Truth Number Two is that it is physically impossible for a riflescope to transmit 100% of available light. As light enters the objective end of the scope, before it reaches your eye it passes through several lenses. Each lens absorbs a small quantity of light. Residual reflection from the individual lenses will also prevent a certain amount of light from passing through the scope. In addition, undesired reflections within the metal tube can hinder the quality of the viewed image and the transmission of light.
Good scope manufacturers devote every waking minute—and great sums of research money—to negating these basic physical limitations of glass and metal. How they do it is fascinating.
It was about this time that my work was involving me in the optics industry, where I had the privilege of working with and learning from makers of some of the finest riflescopes in the world, including NIghtforce.
For example, I thought I knew what light was. It’s what comes through my window in the morning and wakes me up. Or it’s what is insufficient, in the case of hunting lions by flashlight.
Actually, light is simply radiation. This radiation, or rays, consists of waves of varying lengths. The length is the distance between the beginning of the first wave and the beginning of the second wave. . .not unlike a wave on the ocean.
The human eye can perceive light rays between roughly 400 and 800 nanometers in length (one nanometer [nm] = one-millionth of a millimeter). The brain interprets the different wavelengths as colors. For example, blue-violet is in the 400 nm range, extending through blue, green, yellow, orange and finally red at 800 nm.
Oddly enough, the sum total of all the visible wavelengths, seen as daylight, is white. When light strikes a colored object, the object itself filters out certain wavelengths, and we perceive that object in color by the wavelengths that remain. This has profound implications for the hunter and the scope maker both. The human retina has three different types of light-perceiving cells; one for blue-violet, one for green and one for purple. Our blue-violet cells are the most sensitive. Thus, at twilight, blue objects are seen as brighter than red objects. Therefore, it is critical that the coatings used on a scope's lenses increase the transmission of all available blue light to give us the best chance of seeing what we're looking at. A good scope will transmit blue light as a neutral image, giving our blue-violet cells every possible opportunity to discern what we are seeing.
To complicate matters, completely different types of cells in our eyes—called "rods"— are responsible for black and white vision ("cones" handle the color). Rods are far more sensitive than cones. So, when we're trying to discern an animal at dusk, or even after dark, we may not see it in color, but we can see it reasonably well in black and white. That's why the transmission of blue light as a neutral image is so important.
This is why the coatings used on riflescope lenses (and the skill of the company applying them) is one of the most critical factors in determining the light transmission properties and low light performance of a scope. Virtually every scope manufacturer touts “multi-coated lenses.” That it itself means little, and is often advertising puffery. The quality of manufacturer’s coatings varies widely, from cheap and ineffective to extraordinarily expensive, complex, and remarkably efficient.
Good modern coatings are known as "broadband" coatings because they transmit a broad range of the visible light spectrum (i.e., 350 to 780 nm) with a high degree of efficiency.
The weighting and mixture of different nanometer values of visible light are calculated as "day value" and "twilight value" through a somewhat complicated formula achieved by measuring these values with a spectrophotometer. In simple terms, it compares light of a certain nanometer value as it enters the objective lens of the scope at 100%, then measures the same light at the eyepiece after it has passed completely through the scope. The comparison between the two reveals the percentage of different light values that the scope can transmit.
Lens coatings are carefully guarded secrets, formulated by skilled physicists. Top scope companies calculate the makeup of their coatings in direct relation to the physical composition of the glass to which it is applied, since different batches of glass will react in differing ways to the same coating. Coatings can actually be tailored to favor certain nanometer (color) values, giving preference to certain wavelengths that are most beneficial to the hunter under actual field conditions.
Quality coatings also help minimize reflection from the lenses themselves, enhancing their light transmission ability. Modern coatings that have been tailored to the glass used in a scope's lenses, then carefully evaporated in high vacuum, will ensure a residual reflection of less than 0.25% per glass/air surface. Each lens has two surfaces. Thus, the total number of lenses within a scope (a variable-power scope can have between seven and ten) is multiplied by two, then multiplied by 0.25% to determine the amount of light lost in the transmission. Simple multiplication is not accurate, however, as each succeeding lens progressively reduces the total amount of transmitted light. It is a favorite technique of some scope manufacturers to claim light transmission values of nearly 100%. Of course, they're measuring the first objective lens only, conveniently forgetting about the other eight or nine!
How these coatings are applied is just as important. The best scope manufacturers utilize a sophisticated evaporation process in a clean room environment, applying multiple layers of very thin film one layer at a time. It's not as simple as dunking the lenses in a vat and being done with it.
Truth Number Three about scopes is that the very best riflescopes human beings can create will transmit to your eye—under perfect conditions—slightly over 90% of available light. There are but a handful of scope makers that produce optics approaching these levels.
100% light transmission is physically impossible to achieve with current technology, and claims to the contrary are to be discounted. But, what does light transmission mean in practical terms? A decent scope may transmit 80% or so, inferior scopes substantially less. The human eye can distinguish transmission differences of 3% or more. Consequently, there is a very real difference in what you can see through a superior scope versus run-of-the-mill optics.
Under hunting conditions, when you might be trying to distinguish a target at absolute last light, these differences can be critical. It can determine whether you bag your game or whether you have long since called it a day.
There are, of course, many other factors that determine the quality and capability of a riflescope; certainly the glass itself and its resolving capability, the precision with which lens elements are aligned, the quality and durability of the internal mechanisms, its resistance to recoil, even the reflective qualities of the finish inside the scope’s main tube, to name a few.
But, “light transmission,” “low-light performance,” “light gathering,” and other such terms have been bandied about for so long, they have become virtually meaningless to the consumer. There is not a riflescope manufacturer on earth that doesn’t reference one of these phrases in its advertising claims. Backing up those claims, though, is another matter altogether.
The raw materials, machinery, technology and human resources required to craft a top-quality riflescope do not come cheaply. Building a mediocre scope is actually quite simple. Building precision optics is something altogether different. This is the reason for Truth Number Four about hunting scopes; you get what you pay for. Top-of-the-line scopes are expensive to buy simply because they are expensive to make. The number of riflescope manufacturers building optics of absolute top quality and performance today can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And to tell the truth, you wouldn’t even need all your fingers.
So, does all of this justify laying down a hefty sum for a premium scope? It depends.
If all of your hunting is done in bright daylight, you can get by with an average scope. The truth is, in midday sunlight, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the best riflescope money can buy and one you find on a bargain shelf.
If, though, you’ve ever found yourself struggling to count the points on a huge buck at last light, trying to make out what is lurking in the shadows before sunrise, fighting glare from the setting sun, or lucky enough—maybe foolish enough—to take on several hundred pounds of African lion after dark on the other side of the world, your riflescope will determine whether you go home with the trophy of a lifetime or go home empty-handed.
It might even determine whether you go home at all.
by Tom Bulloch
Tom is a 20+ year consultant to the riflescope industry and has the rare privelege of combining business with pleasure. That's actually not a correct statement. In his own words he "works to fuel his passion for hunting."
2015 Utah Mule Deer Hunt
- by Robby Benedict - Nightforce Optics Senior Account Manager
My 2015 Mule Deer hunt started on October 29th as I rolled into camp on the Ensign Ranch in Northern Utah. I was joined by Garrett Wall from Gunwerks, who was set and ready to film an episode for a 2016 airing of Long Range Pursuit. There, I was greeted by my guide Tanner Puegnet of Western Lands Outfitters, and Paul the Gunwerks cameraman. The Ensign Ranch is a privately owned ranch comprised of 200,000 acres that spans across Northeastern Utah as well as into Wyoming. Known for 200 + inch trophy mule deer, my expectations ran high wondering what the week of hunting would hold. After getting settled into camp, our group headed down to the range to become familiar with the Carbon LR-1000 Gunwerks rifle chambered in 6.5x284 that we would be using for this hunt. The rifle, topped with an NXS 5.5-22x50 G7 riflescope, was a true example of the high quality reputation Gunwerks is known for.
Two quick practice shots at 600 yards and we were ready to start glassing. This was a great opportunity to test out the ED Glass equipped TS-80 spotting scope. The weather conditions were turning overcast, spitting snow and rain, but the spotter made easy work picking apart the dark canyons. After checking out several vantage points only to find up-and-comer bucks, we decided to switch gears and move to a an area where the guide had spotted a wide management buck in the weeks prior to my arrival. To our surprise, we were able to locate the buck less than 100 yards from the area he had been spotted in just recently. With darkness quickly closing in, we glassed the canyon for vantage points and formulated a game plan for the morning to come.
Day two started with a first class early breakfast. Before daylight, we were perched on a high vantage point hoping that the buck would be in the area. As light began stretching over the mountain tops, we were on the TS-80 and scanning the mountain faces for the previous day’s buck. The light transmission capability of the TS-80 was as good as anything I had ever tried before. Long before the naked eye could make out the surroundings, the superb ED Glass of the TS-80 was picking the canyon apart. After 30 minutes of glassing, Tanner announced to the group that he had spotted the buck and as luck would have it, less than 100 yards from where we put him to bed. A quick discussion of a game plan, and we were off, hurrying up a distant pass hoping to get into position before the buck followed his small group of does over the skyline.
As we crept over the top of the pass to get into position, Tanner relayed a yardage and dope correction from his G7 Br-2 Rangefinder. 873 yards was the distance to the buck. I dialed the correction into the ZeroStop elevation turret and settled in for the shot. The buck had other plans as he beaded down on the hillside. While his vitals were clearly exposed I quickly learned some of the frustrations when attempting to capture film to be aired on a television network. No bedded shots. So at that point it was a waiting game. The buck clearly wasn’t ready for a nap, keeping a close eye on his nearby does, thrashing his head back and forth and shifting positions in his bed. I pulled myself out of the shooting position, hoping to briefly rest my head and neck, when I heard Tanner tell me the buck was attempting to stand up. By the time my eye made it back into the scope I saw the buck had risen to his feet and was standing perfectly broadside. As I settled the G7 reticle on his vitals my long range training checklist began rolling through my mind. Check the position of my body behind the rifle to ensure my body was as flat as possible, legs in line with the rifle, ankles down. From there I made sure my reticle was level, parallax adjusted properly and my magnification on max power. I reassured my elevation call and asked for the wind. With a steady, but light right to left wind, Tanner called out a 1 MOA hold. Finding 1 MOA in the reticle came easily, and I settled in for the shot. Once I was able to draw a bead, I slowly squeezed the trigger. As the round went off, the buck never budged as I watched the bullet impact just slightly high over the buck’s back. It was a clean miss. The buck was so focused on his does, that the shot never spooked him. He quickly got on the trail of the does and followed them over the skyline. After the miss we made a move to try and get a spot on the buck. From a new vantage point we searched high and low for the group of deer. After 20 minutes or so we caught a glimpse of the buck making his way into a heavily wooded canyon.
With no clear stalk opportunities, we decided to head back to lodge for lunch to get a new plan for the afternoon. On the ride back to lodge, I kept replaying this miss in my head. What went wrong? I felt rock solid on the shot but obviously I left something out on my mental checklist. Just for reassurance we made a quick stop at the range. A painted piece of steel at 900 yards is where I chose to reboost my confidence. Two shots found me tracking high just missing the top of the plate. Then a light bulb went off. In the mix of setting up for an 873 yard shot on a giant 30” buck, I failed to load my bipod. Without that extra pressure into the stock to load up the bi pod, I was creating an inconsistency from how the rifle was designed to be used; in turn causing the report to print high.
With my confidence now back we headed out to the same canyon where we last spotted the buck. It was early in the afternoon but we were confident that the buck would work his way down the pass to the creek before dark. With spotters and binos in action we picked the entire canyon apart in hopes of finding the buck bedded in the heavy timber. After a short while, several does and a decent management buck appeared. After giving the buck the pass we returned to search for our missing buck. Around 3:30 I heard Tanner say that he may have found him. Once the buck emerged into a small opening we knew we had located our buck. I quickly got into the shooting position in case a shot opportunity presented itself. The buck worked the timber over stopping to thrash his horns in various sage bushes along the way. Finally the buck was approaching an opening. The adrenaline began to build as I knew this may be our only chance if the buck decided to turn back up into the timber. Much like the morning’s hunt, Tanner was quick to read out an elevation call from his G7 rangefinder, 530 yards actual distance was the call. With the steep canyon the corrected distance came in at 490. With a quick dial on the ZeroStop turret, I was back into checklist mode in preparation for the shot. The winds began to pick up and another 1 MOA wind call was announced. As I neared the end of the checklist I made sure that loading the bi pod was in the mix. I settled the G7 reticle on the point of the buck’s shoulder and squeezed off the shot. With the cameras rolling we watched the 140 grain Berger bullet impact the buck. Executing a first shot harvest at this distance was the culmination of a number of critical elements including; a proper stalk, solid pre-shot routine, expert elevation and wind calls, and accurately delivering a 140g Berger through a Gunwerks LR-1000 precision rifle system.
After all the high fives ended, a grueling 125 yard up-hill drag ensued to recover the deer and load the buck into the Ranger. On the way back to camp, we found one the prettiest peaks on the ranch and finished the picture taking. That evening at the skinning pole we were greeted by two other management tag hunters who also found success in two mature Utah Muleys. It was a quick turn back home to Georgia the following day but you can’t say enough good things about the 1st class operation that Travis Murphy and his Western Lands Outfitters team are running. From quality accommodations, delicious meals, to breathtaking views and giant Mule Deer bucks, this place is definitely everything and more that you hear amongst the chatter in the industry. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to join the Gunwerks team to see first- hand the quality and expertise that goes into every product they sell. A final big thank you goes out to Tanner Peugnet, our guide. His knowledge and expertise was much appreciated and certainly would recommend to anyone in search of giant mule deer bucks. As an added bonus, look for this hunt to air on Long Range Pursuit, sometime in 2016.
- Robby Benedict, Nightforce Senior Account Manager